Don’t be put off by its schmaltzy title or similarities with the tragic 2011 Christmas morning fire that was headline news for weeks after taking the lives of an advertising executive’s parents and three daughters in her Shippan Point, Conn., home. Although its inspiration may be ripped from the headlines, Bill Clegg’s beautifully written debut novel, “Did You Ever Have a Family,” goes way deeper than lurid banner news accounts to illuminate how grief, guilt, regrets and the deep need for human connection are woven into the very flammable fabric of humanity. The most sensational thing about this novel is how it manages to accomplish all this without a whiff of schadenfreude, prurience or mawkishness.
Clegg, a prominent literary agent, has followed two gut-wrenching memoirs about his drug addiction, “Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man” and “Ninety Days,” with a flawless book about flawed but utterly sympathetic people forced to cope with some of the worst psychic pain imaginable. Even his title grew on me once I realized it was from a poem by Alan Shapiro, another writer who has written movingly about both the challenges and comforts of family.
The raging fire that ignites Clegg’s story takes place on the dawn of what is supposed to be another happy family occasion: the May wedding of June Reid’s daughter Lolly, riding high with her fiancé Will at the “top of the Ferris wheel” of their lives, “a giddy and thoughtless place … so briefly enjoyed.” The young couple, along with June’s philandering ex-husband, Adam, and her much younger boyfriend, Luke, a local landscaper, all perish in a gas explosion and conflagration that quickly consumes the old stone house in Litchfield County, Conn., to which June moved full time after her divorce.
Those are the bare bones of the tragedy, but it’s the deeper back story and aftermath that interest Clegg. He follows various survivors and others loosely connected to them — parents, caterers, caretakers, a stoner teen who worked for Luke’s landscaping business and was an inadvertent witness on the property that day — through their tortured paths in the year after the inferno.
Interweaving their stories with extraordinary deftness, the novel builds in intensity as it brings us to a fuller understanding of what really happened and just what was at stake and lost in that disaster.
At the center of the novel is slim, ponytailed June, a former art dealer in New York and London, alone for the first time in her life at age 52. Numb with grief, she heads west in her Subaru wagon with the only “stowaways from her old life": a cash card and car keys in a pocket of the linen jacket she was wearing that night, which she’d spent out in the wedding tent ruing the brutal words she’d flung at Luke during an argument.
Flayed by “the obscenity of the loss,” she is eventually drawn to places where her daughter, with whom she had been slowly mending a troubled relationship, had found unexpected contentment.
One of Clegg’s themes, also highlighted in “Ninety Days,” is how compassion can bridge class and educational divides, including the gap that separates Litchfield County’s wealthy weekenders, “the pampered and demanding New Yorkers,” and the locals who take care of them, their children and their properties.
Luke’s mother, Lydia Morey, is a hardscrabble local whose life has been so rough that you couldn’t say for sure that her son’s death is the worst thing that’s ever happened to her. A “small-town Elizabeth Taylor” with “the curvy figure of a pinup,” Lydia is a character you’d expect to find in a novel by Richard Russo set in a depressed upstate New York town. Married young to an abusive drunk, she found fleeting solace decades ago with a distraught guest at the motel where she’s long cleaned rooms.
After her husband publicly shamed her, she raised Luke solo, suffering the scorn of nasty small-town gossips — only to do her only child irreparable damage by misplacing her trust in an even worse man than her husband. In the wake of the fire, she answers a smarmy sweepstake scammer’s incessant calls because she has no one else to talk to.
Like a sort of Mohs surgery, each character scrapes away layers to expose and examine their worst mistakes, the things they wish they had done differently. The tragedy, of course, is that they’ve run out of time and can no longer make amends — at least with their dead.
But as their stories emerge and converge, it becomes evident that the people best able to survive calamitous loss are those lucky enough to find solace and redemption in connections with others (as Clegg also movingly chronicled in “Ninety Days”). A stalwart character comments, “Rough as life can be, I know in my bones we are supposed to stick around and play our part … Someone down the line might need to know you got through it. Or maybe someone you won’t see coming will need you.”
Like his memoirs, Clegg’s emotionally direct, polished novel is at once heartrending and heartening. It’s a gift to be able to write about such dark stuff without succumbing to utter bleakness, and to infuse even scorching sadness with a ray of hopefulness.
Did You Ever Have a Family
Scout Press: 293 pages; $26
McAlpin reviews books regularly for the Los Angeles Times, NPR.org, and the Washington Post, and writes the Reading in Common column for the Barnes & Noble Review.